Conceived, composed, and sung by Australian artist Rachael Dease, this 40-minute song cycle is inspired by the book of the same name, which collected Sydney police photographs from the early 20th century depicting criminals, suspects, murder scenes, and seedy neighborhoods.
The photos -- some sepia-toned, others in black & white -- offer a glimpse into a bygone era. Particularly compelling are portraits of individuals that seem to have served as their mug shots, but are nothing like the ones we see today. The images are artfully shot and bristle with personality.
Dease's accompanying songs do not attempt to tell specific stories about the people in the pictures. Rather, they're more poetic meditations that riff on the imagery but are not tied exclusively to it. "And all the sorrow streaked across your face / Horrors all but it's catalogued in place" goes one lyric.
With her dyed red hair and bright red lipstick, Dease is a striking presence. Her vocals can be ethereal one moment, and then shortly afterwards her powerful voice takes on a harsher quality. At times, she hits notes that obscure the clarity of the lyrics, but for those wanting to know the words, they are printed in the program.
There is some pre-recorded instrumentation and other sounds used within the show, but the majority of the music is played live by a terrific four-piece orchestra: Brian J. Kruger (violin), Hayley-Jane Ayres (violin), Aaron Wyatt (viola), and Tristen Parr (cello). The sounds they draw from their instruments go beyond the merely traditional, as they also tap out percussive beats, pluck their strings, and in one prolonged instrumental section create a weird, scratchy sound that verges on the atonal but is filled with dramatic urgency.
-- Dan Bacalzo